Renaissance man and self-taught photographer Gordon Parks made an indelible mark on nearly every art form in midcentury America. Parks rose up through poverty and segregation to become the premier documentarian of everyday life from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Parks—a prolific writer, composer, painter, and filmmaker—also became the first Black man to write and direct a major Hollywood film in 1969 with The Learning Tree, a vital work that was part of the inaugural crop of 25 films added to the Library of Congress for preservation in 1989. However, he is best known for his searing photographic portraits like the iconic American Gothic, Washington DC, and for helping to invent the Blaxsploitation film genre with his adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft. Here are 10 facts about a true visionary.
1. He was the youngest of 15 children.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born to Andrew Jackson Parks and Sarah Ross November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. The youngest of 15, he grew up on the family farm, where they grew corn, beets, collard greens, turnips, and potatoes. When he was 7 years old, his mother bought a piano through an installment plan, and Parks began learning to play.
2. He was the victim of a hate crime when he was young.
Following the death of his mother in 1928, Parks moved to Minnesota to live with his sister Peggy and her husband. But on Christmas Eve of that year, Peggy’s husband tossed the teen out of their house and into subzero weather. Parks, who was just 16 at the time, later claimed this was the moment he realized that he only had himself to rely on for his own survival.
Parks likened this family squabble to another traumatic event from his childhood: a literal sink-or-swim situation that occurred when Parks was 11. Three white boys, who presumably did not believe Parks could swim, threw him into the Marmaton River, yelling “Swim, Black boy, or die!” Parks survived only because he kept his head under the water long enough for them to leave.
3. He bought his first camera for $7.50 at a pawn shop.
In 1937, Parks was working as a waiter on a train service that ran from Chicago to Seattle when another waiter gave him a magazine that featured pictorials of Dust Bowl migrants. It showed Parks how powerful a tool photography could be in helping him document the injustice he had felt his entire life. He bought a Voigtländer Brilliant camera, which he described as a “weapon against poverty and racism,” at a pawn shop for $7.50 (about $115 in today’s dollars) and taught himself how to use it.
4. The first time he tried to shoot anything, he fell into Puget Sound.
“I was trying to shoot seagulls,” Parks told The Smithsonian Institution of his earliest photographic attempt, which ended with him falling into the water. “I saved some of the pictures I’d made earlier in the day and luckily the exposures weren’t altered much by the water.”
5. He got a big boost from Marva Louis.
Parks shot fashion photography for department stores in the St. Paul, Minnesota, area and caught the attention of Marva Louis, a model, singer, and the first wife of famed boxer Joe Louis. Marva recognized Parks’s talent, and suggested that he should think about moving to Chicago in order to have a larger stage on which to showcase his work.
Parks followed her advice. Once in the Windy City, he began shooting portraits of Marva and other society women, which gave his career yet another boost.
6. He photographed The Tuskegee Airmen.
Over the next several years, Parks continued to make a living in fashion photography, but also began taking on freelance assignments and using his camera to document the world as he saw it. A series of photos he took of everyday life in Chicago’s South Side ghetto won him a fellowship with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), an organization tasked with fighting rural poverty, which took Parks to Washington, D.C.
Though the FSA was dissolved in 1946, Parks decided to remain in Washington, D.C. and became the first Black photographer to work for the Office of War Information. One of his first assignments was to document the training and deployment of the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. While Parks was fully prepared to travel with them to Europe, despite the fact that he and his wife Sally were expecting their third child, a group of southern U.S. Senators reportedly interfered. When it was time for Parks to prepare to leave, he was told his paperwork was not in order. As such, he was forced to remain stateside.
7. He published his most famous picture on the sly.
While it might be difficult to definitively say which of Parks’s photographs was his most famous, American Gothic, Washington DC would definitely be a top contender. In it, cleaner Ella Watson stands in front of an American flag in a Farm Security Administration office, holding the mop and broom she used to clean the building. Parks’s boss Roy Stryker noted its power, but said it couldn’t be published. “You’ve got the right idea,” Stryker said, “but you’re going to get us all fired!”
According to Parks, he “sneaked it out and published it in an old [newspaper] that used to be in Brooklyn.”
8. He changed the way some people viewed crime in the United States.
LIFE published Parks’s “The Atmosphere of Crime” photo essay in 1957, wherein he documented crime in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles alongside writer Henry Suydam. The images were striking because they challenged the normal way of viewing criminals, using empathy instead of salaciousness, and uncovering the common brutality and banality of criminal justice by intentionally focusing on systems instead of individuals. Far from the mugshot-laden newspapers and shots of police raids in tabloids, Parks preserved the anonymity of those behind bars.
9. He dedicated his 30th doctorate to a former school administrator who said Black children should not bother getting an education.
Ms. McClintock was Parks’s school advisor when he attended a desegregated (but grossly unequal) high school where Black students couldn’t play sports or take part in any social activities. She and others told the Black students not to bother with college because it would waste their parents’ money. In 1993, while speaking at Skidmore College, Parks dedicated his 30th doctorate to McClintock.
10. He has a cameo playing chess in the reboot of Shaft.
After consulting with Hollywood studios for decades and making his directing debut with The Learning Tree in 1969, Parks made Shaft, the Blaxploitation detective film starring Richard Roundtree as the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about. He made a director’s cameo in the 1971 original as a landlord, and was honored with another cameo when Paramount rebooted the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft. Parks, credited as Lenox Lounge Patron, is playing chess when Shaft greets him by calling him “Mr. P.”